Recently on my tumblr I was drawn into a couple of (unrelated) discussions about the usefulness of definitions. I think my thoughts on the matter warrant an extended discussion in their own right here.
It’s pretty clear that, much as many of us would like it to be otherwise, most words we use don’t have very clear-cut, singular, unambiguously definable meanings. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s attempts to provide such a definition for the word game — a simple, uncontroversial, common word, after all — are the archetypal example here. Not all games are competitive, not all involve winning, not all are entertaining or amusing. (In fact, an example of a game that is none of these things will make an appearance later in this post). By contrast, what makes dance, or politics, or sex not games? You simply can’t do it. It doesn’t mean the word has no real meaning, only that you can’t encapsulate it in a neat definition.
And now imagine what trouble we run into when it comes to words which are emotionally loaded, or politically controversial, or just plain complicated. Two such words came up in tumblr discussion yesterday: capitalism and planet. This post grew a bit long in the writing, so I’ll deal with the first of these for now. The second will have to wait for next time.
Capitalism is very broadly applied. The Wikipedia article on the subject lists over a hundred subtopics in its opening sidebar. The discussion was over whether solarpunk — a new aesthetic movement revolving around sustainable technology, organic design and empowering communities — was, or must necessarily be, anti-capitalist, which led in turn to debate over whether capitalism was inherently exploitative. My comments, I think, bear repeating here:
Capitalism, as in a system under which goods are exchanged on markets and the means of production are not centrally planned, is not inherently exploitative; indeed, the alternative is more likely to be so. Capitalism, as in a system under which human rights are exchanged on markets and the means of production are owned by absentee shareholders, is very probably inherently exploitative. Therefore: taboo the word capitalism. Talk about the issues of this form of ownership or that type of exchange without using the word.
The concept of tabooing a controversial word is derived from a party game similar to Charades or Articulate, in which players must have their partners guess a certain word without using the word (or a handful of related ones). I went on to explain:
Someone who objects to the latter thing may end up in a fruitless argument with someone who wishes to defend the former thing, and without eliminating the word from their discussion, they may not realise where the misunderstanding arose from. Tabooing a word, especially one like capitalism that has many implications and ideological flavourings and nuances and takes in a whole range of real-world phenomena … is a well-established and very useful method of cutting straight to the core of an argument.
As a tool for argument, the game of taboo was popularised in its modern form in this article by Eliezer Yudkowsky, although the basic idea predates him. Rather than prefacing your arguments with gerrymandered or hyper-specific or just very complex definitions, see if you can get away with just not using the words you were trying to define.
There are, however, cases where crisp, specific definitions are very useful, and where deliberately deviating from them is obfuscatory, unhelpful and can sometimes mask something quite sinister. I’ll turn to these cases when I discuss the matter of planet tomorrow.